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Tokyo and Hakone 

I knew I would love Japan even before I went there... I just didn't know how much. It's hard for me to put into words exactly what it is about Japan... is it the quiet kindness of the people, the attention to detail and clean aesthetic, the coolness mixed with a strong understanding of their history, the food, those amazing trains, the efficiency, the fact that they wear face masks when they're sick so they don't infect others? There is so much to Japan, but there is just an overall great feeling that you get from being there- a mindfulness amidst the chaos. 

When I was planning our first trip to Japan, some friends told me that it was impossible to get around without a guide due to the language barrier. My concern was that I'm just not that kind of traveler... I didn't want to be driven from monument to monument in town car. So I took a piece of the advice and hired a guide for our first day. I had him show us how to use the subway and how to properly approach the temples- there is an elaborate system for preparing yourself and we needed a crash course. After day one, we were completely fine. Of course, there was the occasional gaffe like giving a cab driver the American translation of a street name. Just no. And learning the system at the local ramen shops is a trip that requires you pay close attention to the long line of people who go before you. Decisions in those places need to happen quickly and there is no time to be a flustered tourist. 

We did quite a bit of rail travel and the JR Rail Pass was an invaluable investment. The JR offices at the train stations are staffed with very helpful, English speaking attendants and all in all, getting around Japan is easy and fun!

We went to Japan in late January, which was quite cold, but also beautiful and not a busy time for tourists. I am sure the cherry blossoms are stunning in spring, but it was so nice to be there without the masses. 

Here are some things that we did in Tokyo that we loved:

  • Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temple, and the shopping and food street leading up to the temple are fun to explore

  • Zojo-ji Temple. We stopped by this beautiful temple on our way to Tokyo Towerwhich is a bit of a tourist destination and not that interesting, save for the great views from the top. 

  • Ms. Bunny or any of the shops where you can hold a bunny, hedgehog, owl whatever- it's just fun.

  • Definitely go to some underground food courts- Tokyo Station is awesome, but the department stores in Ginza! So good. 

  • Harajuku, is ,of course, a must see for the brightly colored youth scene. Totti Candy Factory is a must if you love cotton candy (fairy floss) as much as I do. 

  • Daikanyama appears to be the cool/ hip area of Tokyo. We particularly loved walking around the area and exploring the Tsutaya Book Store.

  • The Imperial Palace has beautiful grounds to walk around. We were taken here by our guide, which was a nice way to understand a bit of the history. 

  • Tokyo Hands. This enormous department store in Shibuya has absolutely everything you can imagine from tools to bikes to washi tape and cosmetics. My daughter and I were obsessed, my son less so. But it really is a must see during your time in Tokyo.  

  • Simply Oishii Cooking Class. I love taking cooking classes in other countries. It is a neat way to get to know locals and often their markets as well. In Tokyo, we took a wagashi class in a private home. We loved the colorful art form that is essentially edible sculpture. Our host also taught us the proper way to prepare and drink matcha. She does lots of other types of classes, but I do highly recommend this if your traveling with kids.

  • Robot Cafe is another one that I'm glad we did, but it was also kind of lame at the same time. It starts out amazing and crazy, but then it gets a little stale and they are constantly stopping the show to sell merchandise. Proceed with caution- you can always leave at one of the breaks, though of course the grand finale is more technicolor craziness. 

The food in Japan is extraordinary. I think you would have to work hard to find a bad meal. I mean, honestly the 7-11 stores are a thing of beauty. One piece of advice I got before going was, " just look for the place with the longest line of locals." This turned out to be great advice and while sometimes that line was a solid hour, it was always worth the wait!

Here are some places we loved:

  • Ichiran. Don't be worried that is amazing ramen is a chain. It is so delicious that I still crave it all the time. 

  • Azabu Kawakami-an. The buckwheat soba noodles and tempura here is so good!

  • Shabusen. If you've never tried shabu shabu before, this is a great place to do it. It's so fun to cook your own food at your table and this is super fresh and tasty. 

  • Rokurinsha. Tokyo Station has no shortage of amazing restaurants, but this was our first stop. Prepare to slurp your delicious noodles with locals. 

  • Depachika. This is the official name of the extraordinary food halls underneath some of Tokyo's department stores. You absolutely must explore one while visiting. We visited Mitsukoshi in Ginza and it was everything. 

  • Sushi. We did not eat at any Michelin star restaurants while traveling, though I am sure you would be happy if you did; however, for me, the quality of all of the food was just so good that I didn't feel the need to go to that expense- especially while traveling with kids. We found amazing sushi in conveyor belt restaurants (huge lines of locals let me know it wasn't just for tourists with kids) and this place is also delicious if you want the whole experience, Sushi Sho, in Shinjuku. 

Where we stayed:

  • Four Seasons Marunouchi. We loved that we could take the bullet train from the airport to Tokyo Station, which is minutes from the hotel. They sent a porter to meet us and carry our bags to the hotel, which was a perfect way to start our visit. The location is great for accessing the subway and trains. The service was perfect and we loved our stay here. 

24 hours in Hakone

Hakone is a quick getaway from Tokyo and a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Jump on a shinkansen and you'll be in Hakone in just over an hour. There is a lot to do here and we scored a beautiful day to see everything, including Mt Fuji without a cloud in the sky. I recommend getting the Hakone 2 day free pass, which includes a trip on the Mt. Hakone Ropeway and Pirate Ship cruise on Lake Ashi. 

Hakone Shrine. This Japanese Shinto shrine on the shores of Lake Ashi is a beautiful photo opportunity and the surrounding area is extremely tranquil. 

Mt Hakone Ropeway. This scenic trip will also provide a great view of Mt Fuji and the there are special treats awaiting you at the top of the course. Because you are on an active volcano, there is volcanic gas streaming out of the fissures, which you can see and smell.  Kuro-tamago (black egg)”, which is said to increase your life by seven years if you eat one, is a specialty item that can only be purchased here. 

Lake Ashi Sightseeing CruiseThis is the best way to get unobstructed views of Mt Fuji, provided you have a clear day. 

Where to stay:

This is the perfect place to enjoy a relaxing private onsen experience, which is a natural hot spring bath. Look for a ryokan that offers an outdoor bath overlooking the beautiful nature of the area. A traditional ryokan will also offer the tatami mat beds, which is something you really should try in Japan, though depending on your comfort level you may want to reserve for only a night or two. The food is generally included (dinner and breakfast) in these hotels as well, as you will delight at all the little dishes they bring you to enjoy! We loved the whole experience at Ryokan Yoshimatsu

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